Belief vs. Evidence

There is an interesting game you could enter into if you classified the statements you hear or read in the media or in ecological papers. The initial dichotomy is whether or not a statement is a BELIEF or EVIDENCE BASED. There is a continuum between these polar opposites so there can easily be disagreements based on a person’s background. If I say “I believe that the earth is round” you will recognize that this is not a simple belief but a physical fact that is evidence-based. Consequently we use the word ‘belief’ in many different ways. If I say that “Aliens from outer space are firing ray guns to cause flooding in California and Australia”, it is unlikely that you will be convinced because there is no evidence of how this process could work.

If we listen to the media or read the news, you will hear many statements that I or we ‘believe’ that speed limits on streets should be reduced, or that certain types of firearms should be prohibited. The natural response of a scientist to such statements is to ask for what evidence is available that such actions will solve problems, and if there is no evidence, we deal only with opinions or beliefs. If  you lived several hundred years ago, you would be told that “malaria” was a disease caused by “bad air” coming from swamps and rivers, since there was no evidence at the time about microorganisms causing disease. So in a broad sense historical progress was made by people looking for ‘evidence’ to temper and test ‘beliefs’.

How does all this relate to ecological science? I would add the requirement to papers that state some conclusions in ecology journals to also state the beliefs the paper rely on to reach its conclusions, in addition to stating clear hypotheses and alternative hypotheses. Consider the simple case of random sampling, a basic requirement in all statistical methods. But almost no paper states what statistical population is being sampled, and if it does often the study plots are not placed randomly. The standard excuse to this is that our results apply to a large biome, and it is not physically possible to sample randomly, or that we get the same results whether we sample randomly or not. Whatever the excuse, we need to recognize this as a belief or an assumption, a less damning scientific term. And if this assumption is not accepted it is possible to sample other areas or with other methods to test if the evidence validates the assumption. Evidence can always be improved with enough funding, and this replication is exactly what many scientists are doing daily.

Until recently most scientists believed that CO2 was good for plants, and so the more CO2 the better. But the evidence provided was based on simple theory and short term lab experiments. Reich et al. (2018) and Zhu et al. (2018) pointed out that this was not correct when long-term studies were done on C3 plants like rice. So this is a good illustration of the progress of science from belief to evidence. And over the past 50 years it has become very clear that increased CO2 increases atmospheric temperature with drastic climatic and biodiversity consequences (Ripple et al. 2021). The result of these scientific advances is that now there is an extensive amount of scientific research giving the empirical evidence of climate change and CO2 effects on plants and animals. Most people agree with these broad conclusions, but there are people in large corporations and governments around the world who deny these scientific conclusions because they believe that climate change is not happening and is of little consequence to biodiversity or to daily life.

It is quite possible to ignore all the scientific literature about the consequences of climate change, CO2 increase, and biodiversity loss but the end result of passing over these problems now will fall heavily onto your children and grandchildren. The biosphere is screaming the message that ignorance will not necessarily lead to bliss.

Reich, P.B., Hobbie, S.E., Lee, T.D. & Pastore, M.A. (2018) Unexpected reversal of C3 versus C4 grass response to elevated CO2 during a 20-year field experiment. Science, 360, 317-320.doi: 10.1126/science.aas9313.

Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Gregg, J.W., Lenton, T.M., Palomo, I., Eikelboom, J.A.J., Law, B.E., Huq, S., Duffy, P.B. & Rockström, J. (2021) World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency 2021. BioScience, 71, 894-898.doi: 10.1093/biosci/biab079.

Shivanna, K.R. (2022) Climate change and its impact on biodiversity and human welfare. Proceedings of the Indian National Science Academy, 88, 160-171.doi: 10.1007/s43538-022-00073-6.

Watson, R., Kundzewicz, Z.W. & Borrell-Damián, L. (2022) Covid-19, and the climate change and biodiversity emergencies. Science of The Total Environment, 844, 157188.doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2022.157188.

Williams, S.E., Williams, S.E. & de la Fuente, A. (2021) Long-term changes in populations of rainforest birds in the Australia Wet Tropics bioregion: A climate-driven biodiversity emergency. PLoS ONE, 16.doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0254307.

Zhu, C., Kobayashi, K., Loladze, I., Zhu, J. & Jiang, Q. (2018) Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels this century will alter the protein, micronutrients, and vitamin content of rice grains with potential health consequences for the poorest rice-dependent countries. Science Advances, 4, eaaq1012 doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aaq1012.

2 thoughts on “Belief vs. Evidence

  1. Michael Baumann

    If we assume two things …

    Assumption 1: Knowing facts increases fitness — survival and reproduction, “success”.
    This seems reasonable. Imagine the life expectancy of zebras that believe “There is a tree with a leopard tail.” rather than “There is a leopard lurking behind the tree.”.

    Assumption 2: The function of higher education is two-fold: First, the development of competent citizens. Second, the training of a skilled workforce.
    This also seems reasonable. What else are we doing?

    Consequently, the distinction between fact and fantasy must be of vital importance in higher education.

    It is not. I am somewhat old now, but in the 70 university courses I took in my younger more vulnerable years, not a single one formally dealt with this problem. And from my informal observations I must say that most people are rather confused about the distinction between facts, beliefs, preferences, and opinions.

    I teach introductory biology and introductory ecology at an unnamed university. The formal distinction between facts, beliefs, preferences, and opinions is the first thing I teach the students. At the end of the semester, most of them have forgotten already.

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Michael – you hit the nail on the head very well. Perhaps as we get old we underestimate what effect we have had in our teaching our students how to think. Not all respond but all we can do is try as instructors. Thanks. Charley


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